The Real Story Behind 5 Supposedly Haunted Places
One difference between movies and real life is that in a movie, having a haunted house is a bad thing. In real life, a haunted house (or hotel, or boat) is a quick and easy source of income. Tourists will come from all over in hopes of maybe getting possessed during their stay. So maybe it's no surprise that when you run through a list of the most haunted places in the world, behind each you find a very careful and deliberate attempt to craft the right cursed backstory. For example ...
The Real Shining Hotel Only Got Its Haunted Reputation After The Book And Movie
The Overlook Hotel in The Shining is fictional, but based on a real place: the Stanley Hotel in Estes, Colorado. The most famous onetime guest of the hotel is noted Maximum Overdrive director and horror scribbler Stephen King, whose stay with his wife during September of 1974 inspired him to write the quintessential haunted house novel of our time. We don't know what his wife's reaction was upon learning that staying in a hotel with her inspired a story about a guy in a hotel trying to smash his wife's head in, but never mind that. It was their room at the hotel -- 217, for those playing the home game -- where the madness was born.
"217" was changed to "237" for the movie at the request of the hotel they filmed in (the Timberline Lodge, not the actual Stanley Hotel), which had a real room 217, but not a 237, and didn't want the movie to scare guests from renting a real room. Which shows how little they knew about tourism, because the Stanley Hotel gets all kinds of visitors specifically because people think it's haunted. It now boasts any number of haunted rooms, and routinely features on lists of the most haunted locations in the world. It has the iconic hedge maze seen in the movie. Ghost tours do bigger business than renting rooms does, and the Stanley's been featured on ghost hunting shows trying to see if any of King's creepy crawlies will pop out and put their undead mugs on camera.
So what ghostly experience did King endure that triggered the novel? Presumably the exact stuff we know from the book or movie didn't happen (no salami-skinned Susan soaking in the tub, no Kool-Aid Man's burst hemorrhoid on the elevator, no BJ and the Bear Suit), but the place had to have some history that inspired the story, right? Nope! King just liked it as a setting because the corridors were spooky and he had a nightmare while sleeping there. Then, once the book and film became big hits, the Stanley took full advantage. They even ran a horror film festival for a while, which would host an immersive game, putting participants through the paces of hunting kidnappers and occultists and solving mysteries around the grounds.
Then there are the ghost tours, of course. They even had that hedge maze installed (yep, they built it after the movie; the hedge maze isn't even in the book). Soon, staff and guests started insisting they'd had real ghostly encounters. See how that works? The hotel inspired King, who inspired guests, who inspired the hotel to start crafting their own legends. At some point it just becomes more profitable to pretend that the fiction is true, and has always been so.
Related: Ghost Hunting In The World's Creepiest Haunted House
The Winchester Mystery House's Legendary Backstory Is Mostly Made Up
Ask any true haunting fan about San Jose's Winchester Mystery House, and they'll be able to lay the story out for you. Sarah Winchester, a tiny Danny DeVito of a woman, inherited the wealth of a firearms empire. A psychic said her husband's guns had created a bunch of suffering ghosts, and they required that she continuously build a mansion for them until she died. Sarah obeyed, and even performed nightly seances, but she also built the mansion into a confusing maze to trap the ghosts. (Spirits, as you surely know, are easily confused by complex floor plans.) It's interesting, as stories of houses go, and you'll hear the tale yourself if you take a tour of the infamous wainscoted rat's nest.
But the psychic, as well as a whole lot else of what we "know" about Sarah Winchester, was made up by people who bought the house to exploit it, and by a 1967 book called Prominent American Ghosts. That book was written by an author who claimed to be a psychic herself and had the John-Waters-esque name of Susy Smith. When later scholars tried hunting down the specific medium she named, they couldn't find any sign of him, despite all the surprisingly comprehensive contemporary records of spiritualists. And medium or no medium, thinking a woman born during the start of Manifest Destiny could hate the legacy of the gun that won the West kind of ignores every attitude held by anyone of that era.
Winchester's nightly seances / Pazuzu pajama parties, meanwhile, are legend. And I mean "legend" as in "probably didn't happen." The room the house calls "the seance room" does look spooky, with a lot of spider web stained glass and exactly 13 ceiling tiles, but the first reports of her hosting seances came in 1928, years after she died. Likewise, many of the things eerily constructed in multiples of 13 were added later. There's no evidence she hosted a single seance, let alone nightly secret ones -- and since seances were essentially cocktail parties with some ghostly hand-holding, if she did hold them, the front parlor would be a much better place anyway. The "seance room" was actually a bedroom for various servants.
If anything, Sarah built her house continuously to keep people employed and to be closer to the hobbies of her late architecture-loving husband. Some of the weirder twists in the house came about because the 1906 earthquake struck and she just built around the messed-up construction. But she refused to talk to the press, and extremely private rich widows who went about their own lives just weren't tolerated. And so, rather than depict a strong woman with her own interests, the press turned Winchester into a crazy ghost lady. C'mon, wouldn't you all rather visit the home of a woman who made a second fortune in citrus and invented a prototype for washing cars? Wouldn't you?
Related: 4 Horrifying Realities Of Working At A Haunted House
The Queen Mary Got Much Of Its Haunted Reputation From Disney
One of the benefits of being a native Californian is having stuff like the Queen Mary ocean liner in my backyard. Well, sort of backyard -- since 1967, the ship-turned-hotel has rested in Long Beach Harbor, where it runs its own cottage industry of ghost tours, hunts, seances, and devilish dinners. It's one of the top 10 most haunted places in America, as the people running it proudly inform you. Its story is a smorgasbord of sailors who died getting crushed by doors, a captain who passed over after the maiden voyage, WWII accidents, a little girl seen all over the boat, and a vortex located around the ship's swimming pool. But what most people don't know is that the current run of ghost hunts isn't the first. Disney has already been there, and did it better.
In the late 1980s, Disney bought the Queen Mary, along with the Howard Hughes airplane the Spruce Goose next door. The plan was to build a marina-themed amusement park called Port Disney, which was scrapped in favor of a plan for a West Coast Epcot Center, called WestCOT, which was also scrapped because it was stupid. But while they were still running the place, Disney hosted a bunch of themed events on the ship. One was about celebs. They grabbed a gaggle of movie star impersonators to take guests back to the boat's heyday of people your grandparents might have recognized if they weren't senile. Their other tour was a ghostly spooktacular from the people behind the Haunted Mansion.
Thanks to special effects, rocking horses rocked on their own, unseen children cried, and strange messages crackled through the radio room. In the finale, a little girl appeared at a pool vortex filled with lights and mist. This was all said to be inspired by the ship's actual haunted past, but even the parts supposedly based on real history were fairy tales. They pushed room B-340 as where ghosts appear, where a family was murdered back in 1959. But back in 1959, B-340 hadn't been a guest room -- it was just storage. If any guests killed each other, that happened elsewhere (but probably didn't happen at all, as no one can pin down exactly what sort of murder we're talking about).
The problem is that a faked ghost tour, and one done by Disney Imagineering at that, ruins anything that comes after. There's no way for a guest to ever be sure that what they're hearing isn't a speaker hidden in the shadows, or that a ghostly anecdote isn't spiced up by Disney's old writing, if it ever had any basis in reality to begin with. Jump ahead a couple of decades, and everyone treats the haunted nature of the Queen Mary as real, including guests in room B-340, who swear their clothes hangers rattle and ghosts pull the covers off them. It's almost as if a powerful enough corporate entity can just shape culture, and people's very concept of reality, according to whatever will sell the most tickets.
Related: 5 Minor Details That Ruin Every Haunted House Experience
The Myrtles Plantation Sells Itself On Spooky Slavery
The Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana is a bed and breakfast bedeviled by all sorts of haints and haunts. Amongst the sights and sounds are hand prints on mirrors and phantom footsteps pounding up and down the stairs. They offer tours detailing their spooky history, and once you've heard that history, it'd be weirder if the place wasn't absolutely filthy with ghosts. It's been witness to a whole bunch of murders and suicides. The Myrtles Plantation has long been known as one of the most haunted houses in the country, and its story's only minor disqualification is that it's pretty much complete bullshit.
Troy Taylor, the author of the Haunted America series of books, breaks down the claims of the plantation on his blog. When it comes to murders, Myrtles uses pretty much the same measuring ratio guys use on dating apps, as it claims to have had ten, but in reality only had one. The deaths that occurred on the property over the years -- and there certainly were a lot of them -- were mostly those old 19th-century standbys of cholera and yellow fever. Old-timey diseases are the best kind when it comes to making jokes, but don't match up well against duels and lynchings when it comes to campfire horror stories.
The worst part of the Anne-Rice-a-Roni plot Myrtles cooks up for ghost-hungry guests may be the story of Chloe. She gets her own special page on their site as a house slave who, after the master got tired of raping her, poisoned a birthday cake for one of his daughters. Her motive here varies depending on who's telling the tale. Maybe it was revenge, maybe it was jealousy, or maybe she wanted to make the family sick enough so she could become their nurse and secure her place. But the plan went wrong and she ended up killing two different daughters, as well as the man's wife. Horrified and afraid of their master, the other slaves ended up hanging her and chucking her in the river to protect themselves.
Every single bit of that tale, down to Chloe's very existence, is one long raspberry of a fart noise. But you see why they like sharing it anyway. If you're trying to sell your B&B as haunted, "Djangette Unchained" makes for a far better legend than "A Bunch of People Got Fever And Started Shitting." Of course, the plantation is still trying to make money off the backs of slaves, made up or otherwise. So it's horrifying, but not in a fun way.
Related: 7 Insane Moments In The World's Most Hardcore Haunted House
The Borley Rectory Story Was Bull From The Start
"The Most Haunted in House in England" wasn't just the title of Harry Price's book about the Borley Rectory. It's was what the house itself was considered by the British public. Price, the preeminent ghost buster and psychic of the age, was the expert, and guests from T.E. Lawrence to George Bernard Shaw to the head of the Bank of England believed in the seances held there. It became so big that Borley Rectory is still considered a cornerstone in the search for proof of ghosts and life after death, despite no one being able to pronounce the name aloud while keeping a straight face.
From the start, Borley had stories of a hanged priest and a bricked-up nun (killed for the crime of gettin' it on), and the geists began poltering the family of original owner Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull immediately. Bull's daughters saw more creepy nuns than a Conjuring sequel, phantom carriages were driven by two headless coachmen, and the house rang at night with all manner of creepy creakings and groanings. The Bulls were followed by the Smiths and then the Foysters, then the Reverend Lionel and his wife Marianne got unearthly messages written all over the walls. By 1929, The Daily Mirror and Harry Price arrived to get to the bottom of it all.
Yet until their story, there hadn't been a single account written about the activity at the rectory, not in 70 years of supposed haunting. And the man who claimed to be documenting the spookiness was a known hoaxer. Price had connections to the infamous Piltdown Man case, and with Borely, he once again uncovered some highly suspect humans remains, claiming to have found a young woman's bones down where the nun would have been bricked up. He conveniently had a personal pathologist on hand to authenticate them, but according to gardeners there, he just picked up the jawbone of a pig. Then the Foysters encouraged the stories. They pushed guests to roam the ground in cloaks pulled so high that they looked headless, and acted frightened of the knocking from their newly installed water heater.
The house burned down mysteriously in 1939. "Mysteriously" here means both that the exact circumstances are unknown and that it was a damned convenient way of taking the house out of the market of being disproved by evolving science (or as the insurance company put it, arson). Price ruined his reputation with the house. Right after his death, the English Society for Psychical Research declared that they could verify no part of the rectory's haunted history, and most of what any witnesses did see were shenanigans created by Price himself. But the legend still appears in true haunting books, which is the real place where entities from centuries ago linger long after they should have been laid to rest.
Andrew McRae has books and eBooks available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. He can also be found on Instagram and Facebook, as well as writing for Lewtonbus.
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